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The New Statesman profile: Gurbir Grewal, America’s first Sikh state attorney general

Despite almost-weekly death threats, New Jersey’s Attorney General wants to use his platform to resist the Trump administration.

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When he became the Attorney General of New Jersey on 16 January 2018, Gurbir Grewal was expecting that as the state’s chief lawyer he might sometimes be called upon to challenge the federal government, should it violate the constitution or individual liberties. What he did not anticipate was how often he’d have to do this.

In his first eight months in office, he participated in over thirty legal proceedings against the Trump administration, from letters and amicus briefs to lawsuits launched in defence of immigrant rights, the environment, consumer protections, labour laws, reproductive rights and access to healthcare.

“The executive has engaged in an all-out feverish attack on individual liberties, on institutions, from our perspective, on the rule of law,” Grewal told me when we met for coffee in Manhattan, one hot afternoon in mid-August. “I had never anticipated the volume because I never thought in my wildest dreams that they would be this relentless in their attacks. We have to stand up and push back as attorneys general, because Congress isn’t.”

The 45-year-old, who wears a turban as a marker of his faith, is the first Sikh to become a state attorney general, and he is emerging as a powerful voice against the politics of hate that has flourished under President Donald Trump.

In July, two New Jersey radio hosts were suspended after one referred to Grewal as “turban man” on air and the other added, “listen, if that offends you don’t wear the turban, man. And I’ll remember your name.”

“My name, for the record, is Gurbir Grewal. I’m the 61st Attorney General of NJ. I am a Sikh American. I have 3 daughters, and yesterday I told them to turn off the radio,” Grewal tweeted at the station, NJ 101.5, as the story was picked up by the national and international media.

“On a personal level, I am not hurt,” he says, now. “I have very thick skin, as someone who has dealt with much worse.” He was troubled, however, by the menacing implication of the DJ’s comments – unless you remove your turban, I won’t bother to learn your name – and by how it represented the extent to which racial and religious intolerance have entered mainstream public discourse under Trump.

Grewal believes there is a direct link between the rise in hate crimes in the US and the hateful and dehumanizing language used by the senior officials, including the president, who has described undocumented immigrants as “animals” and said they “infest” the country. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, the number of hate crimes reported to police in America’s ten largest cities rose by 12.5 per cent in 2017, Trump’s first year in office.

Sikh Americans are especially vulnerable in this political climate. The Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization, says that Sikhs remain hundreds of times more likely than the average American to be a victim of hate crime. It said that in one three-month period between late 2017 and early 2018, it recorded on average one hate-related incident against a member of the Sikh community each week. To date this year its legal team has received seven cases of hate crimes against Sikhs.

“Some people just need a slight nudge. I don’t know what motivated and pushed every protestor in Charlottesville to suddenly feel comfortable coming out of chat rooms and into the public square. But a lot of it is to do with the environment we’ve created. We’ve invited the most base elements of our society to say hateful things in public and not called them out on this,” Grewal said.

Grewal is motivated by a sense of historic duty. More than once he spoke of the example he wanted to set to his daughters, who are now five, seven and nine years old. “When my kids ask me ‘Dad, what did you do when Trump was president?’ I want to be able to say that I pushed back,” he told me.

He also feels a strong personal sense of duty to represent and stand up for the Sikh American community. He hopes that his public position will help underline the contribution America’s estimated 500,000 Sikhs make to society and highlight that his turban and his religious identity do not make him less patriotic or less American.

Grewal visits the Sikh temple at Glen Rock, his hometown in New Jersey, almost daily. Among the other regular worshippers is Ravi Bhalla, the mayor of Hoboken and one of Grewal’s closest friends. He says their achievements have been an immense source of pride among the community. A few days before we spoke, Grewal had received a letter from a remote part of India requesting his autograph and a photo.

“It is by no means easy to grow up as a Sikh in this country, when you look so different, when you are the only one in school who looks like you,” said Grewal, who possesses an easy eloquence so that even his off-the-cuff comments could easily be delivered from a podium. “I’ve been called a towel head, raghead, terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, variations of the n-word that I never imagined applied to me. In addition to being called names when I was a child, going on the bus was a challenge. People would pull at my hair or take off my turban. I’ve been refused service at restaurants. I’ve been asked to take off my hat in restaurants. And I’ve had to explain to people, and when they don’t understand, I’ve had to walk away. So, I’ve dealt with a lot and at a certain point you turn off the radio. You walk away.”

Nowadays, he receives regular hate-mail and death threats almost weekly. “There’s a segment of folks out there who are not happy that someone like me is in this position, that I don’t look American. That despite being born in America, I am not American. That’s just part and parcel of what I have to do,” he said.

****

Grewal was born in New Jersey, the only son of an engineer and a political scientist who emigrated from India. He graduated from the school of foreign service at Georgetown University and initially only studied law because there was a hiring freeze at the state department. He was working in private practice in Washington D.C. during the 9/11 terror attacks, a tragedy that served as a personal and professional turning point for him.

As he watched the news unfold with his colleagues, the office was subsumed with horror, grief and fervent patriotism. “I felt that patriotism, I felt that tragedy, and I felt that sorrow, but I also had to be worried about something else,” he said. He felt he didn’t have the luxury of expressing his patriotism, he told me, because “I had to now look over my shoulder.”

When he went to his local grocery store on the evening of 11 September 2001, he noticed people were staring at him. “Despite growing up in the US, being born here, being a good athlete, playing every sport imaginable, participating in every aspect of American life, I was just made to feel un-American one day,” he said. One man began regularly accosting Grewal outside his office shouting, “I found Bin Laden!”

It occurred to Grewal that while Sikh Americans have “done a good job of succeeding economically, educationally, professionally, we have never been involved in these front-line, public service positions that are so intertwined with what it means to be American, like law enforcement, any aspect of military service, those jobs where you are visibly part of the fabric of this country.”

He set his sights on becoming a federal prosecutor and in 2004 was hired as an assistant US attorney in Brooklyn. “I just wanted to be able to get in front of juries, say my name, tell them I represented the United States and maybe change the perception of 12 jurors at a time,” he said. He took on high-profile cybersecurity and financial cases, and in 2010 moved to become an assistant US attorney in New Jersey and later, in 2016, the Bergen County Prosecutor, the chief law enforcement officer for the most popular county in New Jersey.

In many states the attorney general is elected, but in New Jersey position is a political appointment. Grewal was on holiday at Disney World when the office of the Republican governor of New Jersey Chris Christie phoned to invite him to interview for the role. Grewal, who is a doting father (he showed me photographs on his phone of his recent family trip to a Taylor Swift concert), was in the queue for a Little Mermaid ride with his youngest when he took the call and thought initially it might be a prank. “Luckily I didn’t say anything I’d regret later,” he said.

By collaborating to launch legal challenges against the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies and the rescindment of environmental and consumer protections, Democratic attorneys-general have been following the strategy first used by their Republican counterparts, who clubbed together to obstruct the Obama administration. Greg Abbot, the Republican attorney-general of Texas, who sued the Obama government over 40 times, was once quoted as describing his routine as “I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and I go home”.

Some analysts have expressed their concern that the position of state attorneys-general is becoming overly politicized, but Grewal believes the bigger risk is doing nothing and allowing the Trump administration to trample on civil liberties.

The office of attorney general is often a stepping stone into politics, and many office holders have later run for governor – but Grewal says for now he’s just focused on his current job. As well as holding the Trump administration to account, he is prioritising tackling the opioid epidemic and improving police-community relations in New Jersey.

Grewal says that despite the political turmoil and threat to civil liberties posed by the Trump era, he remains an optimist. “Our institutions have endured other crises in the past,” he said. “I just have to have faith in our institutions, I have to have faith in the elected leaders that are speaking out, faith that people are stepping up … we’re going to get through this.”

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

“Off-rolling” shows a dark side of the schools market. Labour is right to want to fight it

The practice of excluding under-performing pupils ahead of exams disproportionately affects the less privileged.

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Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner’s proposals to tackle the problem of “off-rolling” in England’s secondary schools feels like a small but significant moment for the Labour Party, and helps build a wider sense of what the party”s National Education Service might look like in practice.  

It’s a welcome concentration on policy, at a time of often damaging polarisation within the party. At the same time it presents Rayner, who has emerged over the past three years as both a popular and engaging MP and an impressive Commons speaker, as less of an opposition scrapper and more of a secretary of state-in-waiting.

There’s a further reason why Rayner’s determination to tackle off-rolling – one of the ”dark sides” of the schools market – is so welcome. Labour’s proposals tap into an emerging cross-party consensus that something has gone very wrong with our accountability system if schools can succeed largely by ditching vulnerable, low attaining pupils in order to protect or boost their public exam results.

By making concrete proposals for change, Labour puts itself ahead of the curve in terms of reform, particularly as the government has deferred action on this pressing issue, possibly indefinitely.  

The practice of off-rolling has come to prominence over the last couple of years. Education Data Lab, an influential research group, first flagged up the problem as early as 2015, pointing out how schools were ”losing” large numbers of vulnerable and low attaining children, with up to 20,000 children missing from mainstream education by GCSE time.

To make matters worse, these pupils are largely disadvantaged, with those eligible for free school meals and looked-after children most likely to be affected. The problem is particularly severe in parts of inner London.

The problem of informal exclusions was highlighted, albeit in a very different context, when it emerged, in the summer of 2017, that a number of sixth formers at St Olave’s, the highly selective south-east London grammar, had been quietly asked to leave.

According to the head, the students had not meant ”floor standard requirements” in both their internal year 12 and AS-level exams, and were considered likely to pull down the schools’ overall stellar results. The scandal played badly in the public mind leading to the school’s controversial head Aydin Önaç resigning in the winter of 2017.

At the same time, reports from leading bodies in the education world, from Ofsted to a cross-party Select Committee, kept the more substantive issue of poorer children being off-rolled in the headlines throughout 2018.

So what is Rayner exactly proposing? Under Labour’s plans, a school will still be considered responsible for a child’s GCSE results unless or until it has secured a permanent school place for the child concerned, thus discouraging schools from allowing low attaining children to disappear from official sight.  The party would “also close an existing loophole where schools receive funding for pupils a full term before a pupil is added to the pupil rolls for exam purposes, creating a window in which there is an incentive for schools to off-roll pupils”.

Experts in the field have welcomed Rayner’s proposals, although some suggest that they may not go far enough. Philip Nye of the Education Data Lab argues that these proposals are certainly ”better than what we have now”. The fear is that while Labour’s proposals will stop the wholesale disappearance of students, it will not prevent schools pushing weaker pupils into local, weaker, under-subscribed, schools. 

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

For Subscribers: The Back Half podcast

Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss the British heist film King of Thieves and Christian Marclay's The Clock installation, before celebrating another noniversary.

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Welcome to the early access, ad free edition of The Back Half podcast. Click here to hear and download the new episode now.

Chequers was always doomed but Leavers can’t blame the EU: Brexit is defeating itself

The rejection of Theresa May’s plan was inevitable - the promises made by her and the Brexiteers have never been deliverable. 

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Anyone surprised by the European Union’s rejection of Theresa May’s “Chequers plan” hasn’t been paying attention. Donald Tusk, the EU president, remarked today: “We all agreed the Chequers proposals for economic cooperation will not work, not least because it will undermine the single market.”

Yet this is merely the line the EU has adopted since the UK voted for Brexit in 2016. Britain, they repeatedly warned, could not “cherrypick”. It could not be in the single market for goods (as the Chequers plan proposes) but outside of it for services.

To concede otherwise would undermine one of the EU’s cardinal principles - that the four freedoms - the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour - are indivisible. Just as one cannot be half-pregnant, so one cannot be partially in the single market. Were Britain granted an exception, it would be an invitation to others (Italy, say) to demand equivalent treatment. 

It was Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of Luxembourg, who perhaps put it best in 2016: “Before, they were in and they had many opt-outs; now they want to be out with many opt-ins.” The Leavers are merely discovering what was clear all along: there is no cost-free option for the UK - Brexit cannot be delivered in the terms that it was promised. Britain, as the EU has repeatedly stated, can be Norway (high access, low sovereignty) or it can be Canada (low access, high sovereignty). What it cannot achieve is some superior hybrid of both.

The problem for Theresa May is that Conservative MPs are demanding she achieve just that, or urging the UK to leave with no deal (which, as May knows, would be an act of national self-harm). As was inevitable, the EU is demanding further concessions but May, with a fragile Commons majority of just 12, has no political space in which to make them. And having pledged repeatedly to avoid a hard Irish border, she cannot countenance a deal that would create one.

It would be wrong, however, to blame the Prime Minister for this fate. Though May bungled the snap election, she inherited an already slim Tory majority. The problem lies not in the handling of Brexit, but rather with Brexit itself. Once Article 50 was triggered in March 2017, the advantage was immediately handed to the EU. There is no “good deal” to achieve, only variants of a bad one.

Any agreement Britain reaches will be inferior to its current terms. The UK, in European eyes, was already having its cake and eating it. As well as membership of the single market and the customs union, Britain enjoyed a formal opt-out from the euro (the only member state other than Denmark to do so) and the borderless Schengen Zone, a £5bn budget rebate and numerous home affairs opt-outs.

May, like David Cameron during his failed EU renegotiation, has long believed that other member states could defy the technocratic Commission and come to her rescue. But as French president Emmanuel Macron made brutally clear today, there is no desire to fix a problem created by Britain. “Brexit is the choice of the British people, pushed by those who predicted easy solutions,” Macron said. “Those people are liars. They left the next day so they didn’t have to manage it.”

Indeed, when Michael Gove and Boris Johnson had the chance to take control in the heady summer of 2016, they self-combusted. However, power would merely have taught them the lesson paralysing the May government: that the greatest enemy of Brexit is Brexit.

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Tony Blair is exactly the right person to lead a new party

Our country is in crisis and the former prime minister is our best chance of tackling it.

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Should Tony Blair be our next prime minister at the head of a new centrist party? Daniel Finkelstein raises the preposterous notion in Wednesday’s Times. As someone who tried and failed to launch a new centrist party, not because I believed I could succeed but because no one else would, I know its searing realities. It was one of the worst experiences of my career. It strained my family. I know that it is not something that anybody can do. But if there is somebody who could do it, who could win an election leading it, it is Tony Blair.

When the last general election was called I was an anti-terrorism officer for the Foreign Office fighting ISIS. I was proud to serve my country, protecting our streets from suicide bombers. But in the midst of our biggest national crisis since 1945 I was demoralised by the lack of moral courage of moderate politicians to put their country before their careers and unite in a new party. So I resigned and stood as an independent candidate in Battersea for a new centrist movement. I hoped to make the point that it is possible to take a risk and make sacrifices for what you believe.

Of course you can argue that Blair is too toxic, forever tainted by Iraq. But Finkelstein is spot on pointing out that Blair won an election after Iraq, and that in any case a new centrist party is tainted too because it will inevitably be a Blairite party anyway. So own it.

Yes Blair needs to show more humility over the terrible mistakes in British foreign policy on his watch, and show that he has learned from them. But time is a great healer. How much has Donald Trump done to make George W Bush seem not so bad? How much has austerity, the chaos of Brexit, the institutional racism and sheer incompetence of today’s Conservative and Labour parties, done to make the Blair years look not so bad? A time of falling poverty, political stability and well-funded public services – voters might just think we’d like to take back control of that country.

Of course, we would like an outsider because we hate politicians. But we only vote for politicians. Labour and Conservative politicians, in fact. Time and time again on the doorstep, people would tell me that what I was up to was a wonderful dream but they wanted to stop/ kick out Labour/ the Conservatives so they would vote Conservative/ Labour. The brutal logic of the First Past The Post system is that it can only be overcome by a personal political brand bigger than the Conservative and Labour parties. Only a person whose name is a political philosophy, who could be backed by a tsunami of defecting MP’s, can achieve that. Anyone else is wasting their time. 

Far more important than a cosmetic outsider, I believe, are policies that show brutal intent to tackle the defining issue of our time, the left behind. This by definition requires sacrifice by the rich. One could do worse than explore the ideas of French anti-poverty campaigner Niels Planel, who urges that every eighteen-year-old is universally endowed with approximately £50,000 that can only be spent on further education, a house, or to start a business. It could be funded by a land tax or inheritance tax. Planel also suggests creating an “Office of Economic Opportunity” to coordinate anti-poverty programmes, modelled on former US President Lyndon Johnson’s effective war on poverty in the sixties. Catch up the left behind and the toxicity of our politics ends.

Anything that smacks of a “remoan” project will fail. So perhaps it means respecting the Brexit vote, much of which came from left-behind areas, with the limited negative economic impact of a soft Norway style Brexit.

Our country is in crisis and the counter-intuitive logic is that Tony Blair has the best chance of tackling it. He is not past it. He is younger than Churchill when he became prime minister, close in age to May and younger than Corbyn and Cable. He has nothing to lose. Now is the time for Tony Blair to overcome Iraq and ask what he can do for our country.

Chris Coghlan is a former Foreign Office anti-terrorism officer who stood as independent candidate for a new centrist movement last election @_chris_coghlan

Everyone is to blame for the 2018 rail meltdown – except, apparently, Chris Grayling

Captain Competent strikes again.

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Last May, the British rail network introduced what had been sold as the biggest timetable shake-up in a generation, and promptly fell over. Commuters had been promised new, more frequent journey opportunities thanks to new or upgraded cross-city infrastructure in London and Manchester. What they got instead was delays, cancellations and, eventually, a new, new timetable – which improved reliability largely by giving up pretending that a lot of services had ever existed at all.

In the weeks that followed, everyone involved played pass-the-parcel with the blame for this catastrophe, downplaying the role of their own mistakes while talking up those of others. Unions blamed train operating companies. Northern and Govia Thameslink in turn blamed Network Rail, the government agency responsible for the infrastructure. So did Transport Secretary Chris Grayling who, with the political instincts and sense of personal responsibility for which he’s famous, said that he did not, in fact, run the railways.  

To the first approximation, everyone blamed everyone else, and the buck – like so many Thameslink services attempting to make up for delays – stopped nowhere. The outgoing Network Rail boss Mark Carne, meanwhile, accepted a CBE. 

Today, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) published its interim inquiry into the causes of this mess – and it concluded, in short, that everyone was right. Network Rail did fall behind on infrastructure improvements, and failed to come up with a back-up plan, wrongly believing it could make up the time. GTR and Northern were not aware of or prepared for problems, and failed to keep passengers informed of their intentions. Both the Department for Transport (DfT) and the ORR itself failed in their oversight roles, accepting assurances from the industry that everything would be fine instead of checking and discovering that it wasn’t. Nobody took charge: everybody is to blame.

There is a danger, however, that if everybody is to blame then nobody will be held to account. In a systemic failure of this sort, everyone can point to somebody else in the chain and suggest that the real culprit is over there. (It’s tempting to see parallels here with the last decade’s financial crash, but perhaps that’s a track it’s best not to follow.) “The present industry arrangements do not support clarity of decision making,” the ORR’s chair Stephen Glaister said. “It was unclear who was responsible for what. Nobody took charge.” 

In order to fix all that, this morning, the DfT launched yet another review, this one the biggest review of the structures of the rail industry since privatisation in the 1990s Speaking on the Today programme, Grayling made clear that one possible outcome would be to replace the 20-year-old infrastructure/operator split with a regionally integrated structure, of the sort used on the Japanese railways. Another would be wider use of the Transport for London model, in which the infrastructure provider effectively doubles as the commissioning body to which operators report. He has ruled out nationalisation, but then he would, wouldn’t he.

Any one of those options might have improved things last May, by improving trust and communications when things went wrong, and making it clear which heads would roll if they weren’t fixed again. But there’s another way of doing that which also leaps to mind. If the transport secretary were to fear for their job when the railways got into trouble, then their department would be less likely to accept industry bosses’ assurances that everything was going just fine. This line of accountability, for some reason, is not one Grayling seems keen to strengthen.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Mercury Prize favourites Sons of Kemet: “We are surrounded by the rise of fascism”

The London band talk British jazz, politics, and what should happen to the monarchy.

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Sons of Kemet are one of the surprise favourites for this year’s Mercury Prize Awards, with Odds Checker putting them at 7/2 at the time of writing. It’s a surprise, not because of the quality of their music, but its genre.

Jazz has often been a side note to the Mercury Awards, with a token act wheeled out once a year but never winning. In 2016 it was The Comet Is Coming, in 2017 it was Dinosaur, and in 2018 it is Sons of Kemet.

Shabaka Hutchings, saxophonist and the band leader for both Sons of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming, believes this year is different. “It feels like this is a good time for jazz in general,” he says. “It feels like there has been a change in the perception of the art; a change both in the face of the people who are performing jazz music and the face of people who are listening to it.”

He believes that since 2016 the idea of “what jazz could be in the context of Britain” has changed. “It’s not music that tries to be elitist or tries to say that we are so involved in our art... It’s just music that we like and doesn’t try to exclude.”

Sons of Kemet’s most recent album, Your Queen is a Reptile, is a unique take on jazz and, according to Hutchings, an expression of modern London. Jungle, afrobeat, and grime are all channelled by the quartet, which consists of a tuba player, a saxophonist, and two drummers.

Theirs is an album bristling with energy, which makes sense given the band’s desire to convey the “hype” and “musical explosions” of their live sets. “When we go on the stage to perform we try to give as much energy and as much joy and big emotions as possible,” Hutchings says. “This album is the closest to we’ve got to the live experience, while still being a well-constructed journey.”

Punk is another genre that the album is indebted to, evident from the clear anti-establishment message it puts forward. “Burn Ukip, fuck the Tories, fuck the fascists, end of story” is proclaimed on the opening track but Hutchings says they didn’t set out to create a political record, it was simply “the reality that we live in”.

“As an artist one of our main roles is to give visibility to messages that involve our community,” he says, “and at the moment we are surrounded by the rise of fascism and a government that doesn’t care about people who come from the same background as I do.”

Although born in London, Hutchings moved to Barbados with his family at the age of six, before returning to England when he was 16. He says there no single event that made him feel disenfranchised from British politics, explaining that it is instead just “part of the reality of growing up black in Britain or from a minority background”.

“It’s solidified by the Windrush scandal which shows the way we are seen by the establishment. Or it could be seen in Grenfell and the response to that and the reason why such an atrocity was allowed to happen. Or it can be seen in stop and search.

“When I first came to London I was being stopped all the time by police, if I was in any car of more than one black person you’d get stopped. There comes a point where this is your reality and if your aim as an artist is to be truthful to the reality that you see and make it a part of your art.”

Even the album title itself calls out the concept of a hereditary monarchy. “It’s almost like a schoolyard taunt,” says Hutchings. “It’s saying your queen is a reptile and challenging you to think about who your queen really is and who you want as a leader.”

Hutchings is perhaps unsurprisingly now a fan of the hereditary system: “The fact that someone is born into a family for me doesn’t constitute enough to make them worthy rulers. If the Queen were to pass away tomorrow or next week it’s important we have an open discussion about whether we want the same system that we’ve had for so long to continue.

“It might be that at the end of that discussion we still have a monarchy but at least the discussion would mean that people are aware of the system that is ruling them.”

Each track title offers an alternative “queen”, all of whom are black and female. Hutchings says that choosing his own royal family was “intuitive”, and he looked to people he could learn from “in terms of their spirit or the way that they conducted themselves”.

The track list includes figures such as Yaa Asantewaa, who led the Ashanti in a war against British colonialism in 1900, South African anti-apartheid activist Albertina Sisulu and Stephen Lawrence’s mother, Doreen. But the most personal “queen” for Hutchings was Ada Eastman, his great grandmother who lived to 103.

“Throughout her life she really worked to make a better life for our family,” Hutchings says. “We came from a very poor area in Barbados.” One of his earliest memories is of her standing on the roof of her house in Barbados, fixing a leak. “She worked to send many of the children from the family to university, to provide houses for all the people that lived in the family unit and had a great work ethic; that’s something that I found inspirational on a very personal level.”

 All of this culminates in an album that Hutchings clearly believes is worthy of winning the Mercury Prize. They are currently looking forward to life in the back of a van on their first coast-to-coast tour of America, and recording their new album in December. But these plans, Hutchings suggests, could be shaken up should they take home the Mercury tonight. He chuckles: “All of this could change if we were to win.” 

Piers Morgan’s campaign for men is straight out of the MRA and incel playbooks

When these beliefs about feminism, men and women are normalised in mainstream entertainment, it legitimises toxic beliefs.

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Lads lads lads, watch out. I don’t know if you’ve heard the news, but feminists have “over-egged the souffle in [their] kitchens”, (that’s where women belong amirite?) and “decided to criminalise the word man”. This is according to Piers Morgan, anyway, who has launched a Good Morning Britain “campaign” for “men to seize back their country.”

Don’t worry, I’m already on to the editors to change the masthead of this website toute suite. You wouldn’t catch a feminist like me writing for a magazine called the “New Statesman”, after all.

Morgan’s latest blustering rant about how feminists have got “carried away” was prompted by Thandie Newton referring to God as “her” during the Emmys.

Enraged by this gender-flipping, Morgan said it’s time to flip “all this sexist nonsense on its head and go the other way” – inventing the terms “Father Nature”, “father tongue”, and “hu-woman”. The “world’s gone nuts”, apparently, and the “future of mankind depends on” this latest campaign.

And they say feminists are the humourless ones. This comic content is about as fresh as the time men guffawed about calling a leading Labour MP “Harriet Harperson”.

Of course, Morgan will dismiss all of these comments as a joke – a great prank to own the libs.

But there is a more serious side to this kind of rhetoric. Ideas about how men need to seize back their country, because feminism has got “carried away”, comes straight from the Men’s Rights Activists and incel playbooks.

First let me be clear: I am in no way saying that Morgan knows about, agrees with or believes in the kind of content shared by MRAs and incels. Instead, I want to explore how these jokes about sexism form the building blocks of a pernicious kind of online misogyny.

Put simply, Men’s Rights Activists believe that women have seized control – of culture, of politics, of family life – in an attack on their white male privilege. Their mission is to take control back, and protect men and boys from “gynocentrism” – ie the idea that women are in charge and oppressing men.

Much of the anger coming from MRAs is that feminism has gone too far – just as Morgan claims “you [feminists] got a little bit carried away”. They argue that the pendulum has swung the other way and it’s men who are now the victims of sexism. They believe that everything from law courts to the media favours women – and the world is worse off because of it. That women will come to realise this soon, is one of their repeated threats.  

On their forums, MRAs claim that “patriarchy is civilisation”, ergo an attack on the status quo of male privilege is an attack on civilised norms. Regarding how men are victimised under the “gynocracy”, commenters argue that complaints of sexual harassment are the “institutional abuse of men for money”. They believe that “feminism has been waging a huge war against men”, and argue that the success of feminism means men “become marginalised and disadvantaged in every aspect of life and this is exactly what has happened to any and all countries where feminism has become institutionalised.”

While Morgan says the future of mankind depends on ending this “sexist nonsense”, men’s rights activists are also keen on the idea that men’s survival depends on ridding the world of feminist thought. On their forums, they write how “gynocentric laws dissuade guys from participating in reproduction” – ie women asking for rights is putting men off wanting to have babies. Feminism, in short, is causing humanity to die out.

The belief that women have got carried away with their rights, and men are the real victims now, underpins much of MRA thinking. And this is when we go into the darkest corners of the men’s rights movements – the incels and the MGTOWs (which stands for men go their own way – men who choose not to have sex with, or even any contact with, women).

The idea that men need to seize control is perhaps most strong in these internet subcultures. Members believe that women have taken control of the “sexual marketplace” and men are disadvantaged as a result. Incels argue women “get such a big advantage due to their inflated sexual marketplace value”, that now “women are much better off than men”.

They even believe that women use accusations of sexual assault to seize and cement their control over men. In one thread, commenters discuss how women turn their “advantage” into claims of “harassment and sexual assault”, and accuse women of “exaggerat[ing] their abuse in order to get sweet sweet attention”. They write: ”all female abuse claims are made because [women] can gain status from it.”

Some in the incel movement advocate that men need to take back control from women in the most violent ways. They argue that there’s nothing wrong with rape, or that ISIS’s mass rape of “sex slaves” is a legitimate way to regain men’s dominance over women.

Of course, this is on the extreme end of those who believe that “men need to seize control” because feminism has got “carried away”. As I say, I am not for one second suggesting that Morgan believes in or agrees with the hateful rhetoric demonstrated above. I doubt he is even aware of what goes on in the dark corners of the man-o-sphere.

And I’m sure by even writing this article I’ll be mocked for rising to Morgan’s bait – the “snowflake” feminist who is “getting really offended by things which are not remotely offendable” – ie a joke campaign from Good Morning Britain.

But in those dark online corners, the idea that feminism has gone too far and women get offended by ridiculous things; the jokes that “you decided to criminalise the word man”, and the command for men to seize control, is mixed up with extreme misogyny and hate speech. These ideas are repeated, and built upon in online spaces where mostly young, mostly white men are radicalised to hate women and other oppressed groups. When these beliefs about feminism, men and women are normalised in mainstream entertainment, it legitimises the grievances of MRAs and incels, and their toxic beliefs.

You only have to spend five minutes on an incel forum to see how Piers’s joke really isn’t very funny.

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department. 

 

Some puppets are gay, get over it Sesame Street

It would be nice if the show’s makers could embrace Bert and Ernie’s relationship, rather than feel compelled to deny it.

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“You’ll meet someone new, don’t worry,” an elderly Portuguese neighbour tells my girlfriend, Leo.   

The Neighbour, a cheerful woman in a muumuu, is asking after Leo’s ex-boyfriend – a guy Leo broke up with nearly three years ago.

“Oh, I have met someone else,” says Leo, gesturing towards me – the woman she has literally just introduced as her partner.

The Neighbour, bent over in her front garden, pauses to uproot a weed.

“Don’t worry,” The Neighbour repeats, “You’ll find someone.”

Leo blinks slowly.

“Okay then,” she says, “See you later”.

In silence, we leave her to her weeding.

“Next time, can you just tell her I’m your wife?” I say to Leo halfway down the road and out of earshot of The Neighbour. I wonder why I have a headache then realise my face is contorted in a frown.

“Is this you proposing to me?” says Leo.

Since the beginning of our relationship, over two years ago, we’ve been trying to get it into The Neighbour’s head that I’m more than just a very supportive friend who visits Leo several times a week to comfort her over an extremely stale breakup.

But we’re not the only same-sex couple experiencing this problem. Cohabiting humanoid puppets Bert and Ernie have just been demoted to “best pals” by the organisation behind Sesame Street. In response to one of the show’s writers, Mark Saltzman, announcing that (no shit) the two characters who have now shared a bedroom (albeit in separate beds) for nearly fifty years are indeed a couple, Sesame Workshop released a statement rebutting this. According to this edict, Bert and Ernie “do not have a sexual orientation”. Now, aside from the asexual erasure that comes with the assumption that asexuals are automatically aromantic (asexual couples exist), please – for the love of god – isn’t it time the gay couples as “bestest buds” euphemism died on its hoary ass?

If there’s one thing people in same-sex relationships know all too well, it’s the heart-sinking feeling of your partner being cast – usually by uncomfortable family members – as literally anything but. From “court favourites” of James I to the “live-in gal pal” of Kristen Stewart – countless couples have been given the Bert and Ernie treatment. Leo and I were once asked by a nosy mechanic if we were sisters. This is in spite of us looking absolutely nothing alike. Leo is tall and slim; I’m short, much darker and much less slim. Side by side, I always assume we look like Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni. And I somehow doubt they’ve ever been asked if they’re brother and sister.

The truly sad thing about the unwillingness of Sesame Workshop to accept Bert and Ernie as a couple is the implication that a same-sex relationship would somehow corrupt the innocence of the show. The thought process seems to be that confirming Bert and Ernie are a couple is also confirming that they met while out cottaging in Central Park. Meanwhile, straight couples get to have all the casual hook-ups and anal sex they like without their “lifestyle” forcing producers to denounce Kermit and Miss Piggy as a couple. This societal obsession with gay people’s sex lives is as damaging as it is tedious.  

As a matter of urgency, children need to see that same-sex relationships exist, are normal and sometimes even quite boring (Bert and Ernie must be pretty long-suffering of each other at this point). Thankfully, official statement aside, everyone – including Piers Morgan unfortunately – seems to think the puppets are an item anyway. It would just be nice if the makers of Sesame Street could embrace this, rather than doing the “done thing” of making gay references taboo. Of course Sesame Workshop wouldn’t want to promote the homosexual lifestyle, although it’s absolutely fine for Cookie Monster to promote the diabetic one.

It’s altogether quite surprising though that a famously woke show like Sesame Street, which introduced an autistic character to the cast last year, would turn down an opportunity to teach kids about acceptance of differences. Isn’t that like... their whole thing?

Either way: some puppets are gay, get over it. 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist.

Podcast: Party Conference Deja Vu

The New Statesman podcast with Helen Lewis, Anoosh Chakelian and Jonn Elledge.

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Helen is joined by Anoosh Chakelian to discuss the shaming of Donald Trump by Stormy Daniels, plus why Labour Party conference gives her serious deja vu. Then Jonn Elledge reports back from Lib Dem conference, and hands out some TV recommendations too.

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